There have been several reports in the media suggesting that some doctors in British clinics are agreeing to abortions solely because of the foetus’ gender. The allegations stem from an undercover investigation by The Daily Telegraph, which said it had secretly filmed three doctors offering to arrange terminations after being told the reason the women did not want to go ahead with the pregnancy was the sex of the foetus. The paper has posted edited highlights of the secret filming online.
Abortion for non-medical purposes, for example, because of the foetus’ gender alone, is illegal in Britain. The Abortion Act 1967 covers England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. The law states that:
- Abortions must be carried out in a hospital or a specialised licensed clinic.
- Two doctors must agree that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy would.
What is the basis for these current reports?
In a report this week, the Telegraph said it carried out an investigation into the possible abortion of a foetus on the grounds of its unwanted gender after concerns were raised that the procedure was becoming increasingly common “for cultural and social reasons”.
Acting on specific information, undercover reporters accompanied four pregnant women of different ethnic backgrounds to nine abortion clinics in different parts of the country. In three instances, it said, doctors were recorded offering to arrange terminations after being told the woman did not want to go ahead with the pregnant because of the sex of the foetus.
One consultant was filmed telling a pregnant woman who said she wanted to abort a female foetus: “I don’t ask questions. If you want a termination, you want a termination.” The consultant later telephoned a colleague and explained it was “for social reasons”.
Another doctor agreed to arrange a termination of a male foetus after being told the woman and her husband already had a son from his first marriage. The doctor arranged for a colleague to undertake the termination.
In a further report, a third doctor was filmed admitting a termination on the grounds of gender alone would be “like female infanticide” and said he would instead put down as the reason “too young for pregnancy”.
Are abortions legally available “on demand” in the UK?
No. It's a common misconception that a woman "has the right to choose" or that she can have an abortion carried out "on demand".
What does the law actually say on abortion?
The 1967 Abortion Act governs abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. Under the Act, termination of pregnancy is legally justified if two doctors “decide in good faith” that one or more of the grounds specified in the Act are fulfilled:
- Continuing with the pregnancy would be a greater risk to the woman's life than ending the pregnancy.
- Continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the woman's physical or mental health than would ending the pregnancy.
- Continuing with the pregnancy would be more of a risk to the physical or mental health of any of the woman's existing children than ending the pregnancy.
- There is a real risk that the child, if born, would have a serious physical or mental disability.
In the case of an emergency where there is risk of serious injury or a threat to the mother’s life, only one doctor needs to agree to an abortion.
The Act does not apply in Northern Ireland or the British Crown Dependencies.
Does the law say anything about abortion on the grounds of gender?
No. But agreeing to an abortion on the grounds of the foetus’ gender alone, without a medical reason to support it, would not be viewed as fulfilling the medical criteria required by law.
Would there ever be any legal justification for an abortion on the grounds of gender?
If a foetus was found to have a genetic, sex-linked disorder that would cause serious disability, this might fulfil the legal, medical criteria for terminating the pregnancy. Sex-linked disorders are inherited through one of the X or Y chromosomes.
What safeguards are supposed to be in place before an abortion is carried out?
The grounds for a planned abortion must be agreed by two registered medical practitioners unless it is an emergency, in which case one doctor can approve it. A termination has to be carried out in a hospital or clinic approved for the purpose by the government.
On what grounds are most abortions allowed?
According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 97% of abortions were carried out because the mother was less than 24 weeks pregnant and the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
What happens next?
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has told the Telegraph that the Department of Health (DH) would be speaking to the police about the allegations to investigate whether criminal offences have been committed. He said the DH would furthermore ask the General Medical Council to investigate individual clinicians. The DH has also asked the Care Quality Commission (the NHS regulator) to inspect the named clinics urgently. The Chief Medical Officer has written to all clinics licensed to carry out abortions to remind them of the requirements of the Abortion Act.
Two of the doctors filmed have reportedly been suspended.
Who can I talk to about whether to continue my pregnancy?
If you are pregnant and don’t know what to do, a good starting point is to consult the fpa (Family Planning Association) guide to your options.
Abortion investigation: Doctor admits procedure tantamount to 'female infanticide'. Daily Telegraph, February 23 2012
Abortion investigation: Available on demand – an abortion if it’s a boy you wanted. Daily Telegraph, February 23 2012
Abortion investigation: Doctor secretly filmed offering to terminate a foetus because of its gender. Daily Telegraph, February 22 2012
Doctors suspended in the furore over abortion by gender. Daily Mail, February 24 2012
Gender-based abortion claims probed by Department of Health. BBC News, February 24 2012
Clinics granting sex-selection abortions to be investigated by health officials. Guardian, February 24 2012